WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Schumer introduced fellow New Yorker Loretta Lynch, the attorney general nominee, to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January as a public servant who “has earned a reputation for keeping her head down and avoiding the spotlight – just like me.”
The hearing room erupted in laughter.
It has long been said that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a microphone. And now comes Superstorm Schumer: The man with the biggest mouth in Washington is about to inherit one of its loudest megaphones.
Harry Reid blessed Schumer Friday to succeed him as Democratic leader when Reid retires in 21 months. Schumer is likely to become his party’s de facto leader long before that: His likeliest rival, Dick Durbin of Illinois, backed out of the running even before Reid’s announcement.
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This is a welcome development for a Democratic Party sorely in need of a competent strategist at the top. The Obama White House, and to a lesser extent Democratic congressional leaders, have been guilty of felony message-bungling in recent years. And Schumer, who introduced a campaign-style war room to Democrats’ legislative operation in the Senate four years ago, has the sort of discipline that has eluded his party.
Reid is a master parliamentarian and is well liked by his caucus. But he’s a weak strategist and dealmaker – and a serious liability when he opens his mouth. A top performer on the Professional Gaffe Association tour, Reid is the one who blurted out that George W. Bush was a “loser” and a “liar,” Alan Greenspan a “hack,” Clarence Thomas an “embarrassment,” the war in Iraq “lost,” Capitol tourists smelly, his aides “fat,” and then-candidate Barack Obama a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” The former boxer and lifetime pugilist likened opponents of Obamacare to slaveholders and falsely alleged that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years.
It may not be obvious that the ideal person to lead Senate Democrats to victory in Kansas or North Dakota is the showboating Schumer, a liberal Jew from Brooklyn who can frequently be heard saying “Mistuh Cheh-uh-mun” in his New Yawk accent. But ideology matters less to Schumer than winning. Though he’s justifiably accused of being too close to Wall Street, he also played a key role in persuading Elizabeth Warren to run for the Senate, taking the populist firebrand to dinner a few times after her bid to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ran aground.
After he led the Democrats’ campaign to take control of the Senate in 2006 and to expand their majority in 2008, he responded to the Republican gains in the 2010 election by taking over the Democratic Policy Committee, setting up a legislative war room on the third floor of the Capitol where four Reid staffers and three Schumer staffers coordinated the Senate Democrats’ message. The New Yorker’s goal: to find themes that would unify the caucus, from Warren on the left to Joe Manchin on the right. He was the Senate Democrats’ point man during the 2013 government shutdown, holding the caucus together when Republicans attempted to reopen the government in piecemeal fashion, and again this year when the Department of Homeland Security faced a shutdown.
His political instincts have more than once proved truer than President Obama’s. He asked the White House to keep quiet while he negotiated with John McCain over the Senate immigration bill, which got 68 votes. The White House obliged, but after Obama gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the Senate compromise on the eve of its passage, the proposal died in the House.
Schumer infuriated White House officials last year when he said in an appearance at the National Press Club that Democrats focused on the “wrong problem” when they passed Obamacare and that the way they handled stimulus legislation was a “mistake.”
Obama loyalists claimed that Schumer had made no such complaint at the time the health care bill was being considered. But he had made such a critique, and in retrospect he was correct: Had Democrats done more for the economy first and attacked health care in smaller pieces, they likely could have achieved more lasting gains on both without losing their majorities.
Democrats did lose their majority, of course, and there’s little they can do now to shape the agenda. But under Minority Leader Schumer you can expect fewer filibusters, more deals and more attempts to make the Republican majority cast unpopular votes. That, and a whole lot of news conferences.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.